Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Rocketeer at War

At the risk of sounding repetitive or obsessed, this week’s entry is once again about the Rocketeer. I had intended on writing a series of posts as I worked my way through the various IDW comics series reviving the character after Dave Stevens’ tragic passing. However, this week, I’m going to skip ahead to the most recent entry, The Rocketeer at War, because the collected edition has just come out, and I just read it the other night.

Given the character’s debut adventure was set in the late 1930s, it only made sense that we would inevitably see the adventures of the character in World War II. Indeed, we caught a glimpse of his wartime escapades in the pages of Rocketeer Adventures Volume One, in the fantastic story by Kurt Busiek and Michael Wm. Kaluta. I don’t remember all the details of all the other stories in Rocketeer Adventures Volume Two, nor have I read the prose collection, Rocketeer Jet-Pack Adventures (more about that later), but I am pretty sure that this book is the first extended comics story featuring the Rocketeer’s war service.

The creative team is certainly one to be reckoned with. The script is by veteran comics writer and television producer Marc Guggenheim, returning to the character after writing a story in Rocketeer Adventures Volume Two. The first half of the book is illustrated by animator Dave Bullock, who also receives co-plot credit for the second chapter. The second half is illustrated by J. Bone, who has done a lot of Rocketeer stories for IDW. Colors are by Ronda Pattison, letters by Gilberto Lazcano and Chris Mowry, and the book also includes the short story “The Rivet Gang” by Lisa Morton, originally published in Jet-Pack Adventures and later serialized through the individual issues of Rocketeer at War. 

The death of the Rocketeer! OR IS IT?!?!?!?

As the story opens, the army is trying to test the Rocketeer’s rocket pack, with apparently repeatedly fatal results, while Cliff fights on the front lines in Europe as a regular Joe. However, it’s not too long before he’s back in the helmet and jet-pack, flying missions for the US military because, it turns out, he’s the only one who can. Along the way, he meets up with gorgeous RAF pilot Roxy O’Hara; I don’t know how many female RAF pilots there actually were in World War Two, but I suspect at least as many as there were pilots flying around in jet-packs. We also meet some new flying adversaries: the Nazi equivalent of the Rocketeer, and an agent who flies in a winged glider suit that kind of resembles a flying squirrel, but nasty. And, of course, Cliff’s girlfriend Betty gets caught up in the action when she joins the WACs and goes on a USO tour to Europe.

Enter Roxy O'Hara!

The story is very much a pulpy, classic World War Two adventure, with Nazi spies, super-bombing missions over the skyscrapers of New York, secret bases hidden in gothic castles, Japanese scientists creating death rays, and, of course, beautiful women. It’s a good, old-fashioned adventure, with some fun action sequences, and just the right touch of humor that you’d expect from the Rocketeer. And it’s got a couple of strong female characters taking on big roles in the story, including Betty, who shifts easily from damsel in distress to hero in her own right.
Spooky Nazi castle!

Last week, I wrote about Cliff Secord’s transition from self-serving joe schmo to full-fledged hero. That hero is who we see as the focus of this book. In the beginning, we learn that Cliff doesn’t even have the rocket pack any more because he voluntarily turned it over to the United States Army, and we see his acts of bravery on the battlefield. However, while he may be a few years older and a bit more responsible, he still feels like the Cliff Secord we met in the pages of Starslayer #2, written and drawn by Dave Stevens.
We'd recognize Betty no matter who drew her.

Betty is literally drawn into the action!

As I discussed in regard to the Rocketeer Adventures, the art in IDW’s various Rocketeer stories is often pretty far afield from Dave Stevens’ meticulous, realistic, detailed renderings. I am a huge fan of Stevens and the Rocketeer, and I am okay with this. Dave Stevens is no longer with us, and I don’t want to see someone trying to imitate his work. His Rocketeer succeeds because it is a complete expression of his vision. Other creators working on the character will never have that personal connection to the character, but I feel the work feels more sincere when they are trying to capture the spirit of the characters and storytelling with their own styles, rather than trying to imitate Dave Stevens.
The Rocketeer encounters his Nazi counterpart

Having said that, on the surface, Dave Bullock and J. Bone are pretty different from Dave Stevens, with styles that owe more to the minimalist linework of classic artists like Alex Toth, or classic animation. What they share with those artists, and also Dave Stevens, is a clarity of storytelling and design. You look at the pages in this book, and you absolutely know who is who, and what’s going on. That is what I expect from a Rocketeer story: great art and storytelling in service to an entertaining period adventure story featuring the characters I know and love. And that’s absolutely what I got from this book.
Betty and Roxy make a good team

The book also features a gallery of variant covers, including some very nice ones by Nick Bradshaw. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, there’s a prose story, “The Rivet Gang,” by Lisa Morton. This story was originally published in The Rocketeer Jet-Pack Adventures, and was reprinted as a serial over the four individual issues of The Rocketeer at War. Because it had already been published in a book, I wasn’t sure it would be included in this collection, but it’s nice to see it here. Although, honestly, if the intent was—as I imagined when the original issues featured this story—to promote Jet-Pack Adventures, there probably should have been some mention of that book somewhere in this one. Whatever. 

I have to admit, I haven’t actually read Jet-Pack Adventures, which may seem odd, given my obvious love of the character. The simple fact is, when it was published, I honestly believed that we would never be getting any more Rocketeer comics (it was a bit of a gap between the last series, Rocketeer/Spirit, and this one). So I didn’t jump into it right away, because I was sure that when I finished, that would be it as far as new Rocketeer stories for me to read. I’m pleased to discover that I was wrong at that point, but I still expect every new Rocketeer story—and every new Shadow one, for that matter—to be the last. So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised, and I hope to be surprised again. After all, this book ends with the line, “Keep an eye out for the next thrilling chapter of the Rocketeer at War!” and I definitely will do just that. But, as I’ve felt at the end of every series, if this is the last Rocketeer story I get, then it’s one more than I had expected to ever be able to read.

While overall I really enjoyed this book, I do have a couple of complaints. First, unlike all of IDW’s previous Rocketeer collections, this one is in paperback. The others are all hardcovers, with the art printed right on the cover, instead of a dust jacket. I think they look really nice, and I wish this were in a matching format.

Second, this is the second Rocketeer miniseries in a row drawn by multiple artists. At least this one is only drawn by two artists, whose styles aren’t completely dissimilar; the Rocketeer/Spirit story had three artists with fairly different art styles. Since this is the second time J. Bone has been brought in to draw the second half of a Rocketeer tale—and was the sole artist on a third series—maybe he should just have the assignment regularly in the future. I’d be fine with that. And honestly, given the huge amount of time it took Dave Stevens to produce installments of the original series, I do think it’s very much in keeping with the spirit of the series to take the time to give the art a consistent look.

I have seen internet reviews describe his work as “bad” or “ugly” on the Rocketeer books. I think that translates into “Not a Dave Stevens clone.” And, while I get that fans of the original stories may feel that new stories should only be drawn by artists whose work resembles Dave Stevens’ art on the surface, I think I’ve made it pretty clear above that I find the work of artists like J. Bone completely in keeping with the storytelling intent of the character.

My last quibble is that as good as this story is, there's nothing in it quite as cool as the single image of the Rocketeer fighting a giant Japanese robot octopus in the Busiek/Kaluta story.

If all goes according to plan, next week will be another entry about a favorite comic of mine that has recently come back into print. See you then!

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